Last week, researchers at Oregon State University announced that they had successfully patented a new strain of red marine algae, known as dulse, that grows extremely quickly and could serve as an excellent source of plant-based protein.
It also, according to researchers, tastes exactly like bacon when it’s fried.
Finding a nutrient-rich alternative to bacon is certainly good news for health-conscious eaters — but an increase in seaweed farming across the United States would be really good news for environmentalists, too.
Charlie Yarish, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, has been a seaweed farmer for decades, cultivating strains of kelp in the coastal waters of Connecticut and Long Island. And apart from being a tasty product with a robust international industry (25 million tons of seaweed are harvested annually around the world), Yarish thinks seaweed is a particularly exciting crop because of its ability to extract nutrients from aquatic ecosystems. Basically, seaweed doesn’t just grow in the coastal waters that humans are pumping full of pollutants — it thrives in those environments.
“You’re dealing with a crop that doesn’t require fresh water, it does not require arable land,” Yarish told ThinkProgress. “We’re starting to see in western cultures there are some very interesting attributes of seaweed that fit our needs. One of the major problems that coastal managers have has to do with managing nutrients.”
In 2010, 39 percent of the United States’ population lived along the coastline, bringing with them industry — like agriculture — that pumps coastal waters full of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous and contaminants like mercury and lead.
Nitrogen, primarily from agricultural fertilizers, is an especially common nutrient in coastal waterways, but an overabundance of nitrogen in coastal waters encourages phytoplankton growth and algal blooms, which deplete oxygen from marine ecosystems. Unconstrained nutrient runoff from agricultural areas can lead to coastal dead zones — areas completely void of oxygen — that can rob communities of economic gains from fishing and shellfish harvesting.
“That’s just not good for the environment,” Yarish says of marine dead zones. “Economic values decline for coastal communities and the very resource that people want to live by is starting to be degraded.”
But seaweed farming can help reverse an imbalance in nutrients through bioextraction — the process of taking up nitrogen and other nutrients and converting them to living tissue (in the form of edible seaweed). It’s what’s known as an ecosystem service, where living organisms provide a beneficial service to the environment.
“If you use the right seaweeds, you can actually start extracting nutrients,” Yarish said. “In areas where you have excess nutrients, that’s an opportunity. We’re doing an ecosystem service, and creating crops.”
The right kind of seaweed is a tricky question — and where the potential for dulse to become a sustainable substitute for bacon both succeeds and falters. All seaweed, according to Yarish, extracts nutrients as it grows. The problem is a matter of scale.
“There are limitations on how much you can produce,” Yarish said. “A kelp farm can produce far more biomass than Palmaria [the scientific name for dulse].”
Dulse is a red, lettuce-like algae that grows naturally in the coastal waters of the Pacific and Atlantic. For 15 years, Chris Langdon, an aquaculture researcher at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, has studied dulse, trying to figure out a way to make the nutritious algae grow quickly enough to become commercially viable feed for abalone, a type of edible sea snail. In 2004, he obtained a patent for a particularly fast-growing strain that can double its weight in just 10 days. But a year and a half ago, Chuck Toombs, a business professor at Oregon State University suggested that Langdon might want to stop trying to grow dulse for abalone, and start growing it for humans.
“I think we were at the right place at the right time, where there’s more and more interest in using aquatic plants for human food,” Michael Morrissey, director of Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center, told ThinkProgress.
Langdon, along with Morrissey and others at the Food Innovation Center, reached a historic moment with dulse in January, when they were able to have it declared a specialty crop by the Oregon State Department of Agriculture — something that has never happened for a seafood. Under the specialty crop status, the team could apply for a grant to expand their dulse research, whittling down a list of over a hundred potential dulse products to two finalists — a cracker and a salad dressing — that they hope will hit retail shelves in the fall.
Unlike the kelp that Yarish grows along the Atlantic coastline, Langdon and his colleagues grow dulse in cultured tanks of seawater. That allows them to fine-tune the nutrient content of the water and grow dulse year round, but it also constrains their ability to scale their dulse operation to a commercially-viable size. But, if Western palates find the smoky taste of dulse appealing, there’s no reason that dulse couldn’t be integrated into coastal seaweed farming schemes — improving the diversity of seaweed farms across the United States. Maine Coast Sea Vegetables — a seaweed farming company that produces about 100,000 pounds of sea vegetables annually — already grows dulse in Maine’s coastal waters as part of its operation.
“If they got something that tastes like bacon, they added value for that particular red seaweed,” Yarish said. “It’s all part of the equation. Diversity is important, diversity harbors unique attributes of genomes that can respond to environmental pressures.”
Besides nutrient runoff, ocean acidification is another environmental pressure that’s expected to alter marine ecosystems in the future. As the ocean begins to absorb more and more of the carbon dioxide that humans are putting into the atmosphere, the pH of the water is expected to decrease, making the world’s oceans more acidic. For organisms like shellfish, that could be a problem, because acidic waters means shellfish have to work harder to produce their shells, leaving them with less energy to fight disease or find food.
But like excess nutrients, Yarish said, seaweed has also shown an ability to thrive in waters with greater concentrations of carbon dioxide.
“Algae are the winners when it comes to ocean acidification,” he said. “They have the ability to extract more CO2 out of the water, and therefore lowering the pH of that water.”
To Morrissey, finding a hardy strain of seaweed that has the potential to adapt to the changing environment is an exciting discovery for a food system that is grappling with how to sustainably feed the more than nine billion humans that are expected to live on earth by 2050.
“Seaweeds or aquatic plants have been in the background, but I think they need to come to the foreground and be present as an important component in this mix,” he said. “They are fairly easy to grow, you can grow them in terms of production of biomass, its some of the fastest growing food on the planet, and people need to look at that and take advantage of it.”